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Jakarta Post

Hunting the virus

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, March 26, 2020   /   08:14 am
Hunting the virus Government’s spokesman for COVID19-related matters, Achmad Yurianto talks in a press conference on Wednesday, March 25. (Antara/Rivan Awal Lingga)

Devastating news emerged Wednesday, the Hindu Day of Silence, that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s mother, Sujiatmi Notomiharjo, has died. The President faces the extra burden of mourning even while battling the raging pandemic.

With an already overwhelmed healthcare system, the government has imported test kits, which are vital for detecting many more cases as quickly as possible across the country.

However, the mass testing, which starts this week in the capital – the epicenter of the pandemic in Indonesia – and adjacent provinces of Banten and West Java, which have recorded the second highest number of cases, will not be on the scale nor as sophisticated as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing in South Korea.

The mass testing will employ rapid test kits, which use blood samples to detect if patients have the antibodies to the pathogen. The tests require less laboratory work to produce results, but are also reported to be less accurate than PCR tests.

It is expected that many more cases will be discovered and it is hoped this earlier detection will help prevent further transmission. Jokowi has dismissed the idea of a national lockdown, likely out of fear of the devastating impacts it would have on the economy, and is instead pinning his hopes on the targeted rapid testing to track down cases, especially among medical workers and at-risk citizens, such as those returning from overseas or those who have had close contact with confirmed cases.

However, given the lack of accuracy of rapid testing, the real scale of the pandemic in Indonesia will remain unknown. As of Wednesday, the country had recorded 790 cases, with 58 deaths and 31 recoveries. Experts fear the growth in the number of cases will follow the exponential spikes seen in Iran and Italy.

Therefore, while the President and his officials are right to reiterate the importance of preventive measures, such as physical distancing, remaining healthy and staying home, a lockdown is still necessary. Under the 2018 law on health quarantines, the government is obliged to provide for the basic needs of the poor. If they follow the President’s call to work from home, they will have no way to feed their families.

There is also only so much officials can do to remind people to wash their hands and maintain a safe distance from others, such as on public transportation.

According to the government’s spokesman for COVID-19-related matters, Achmad Yurianto, many of the elderly people who have contracted the virus lived with younger family members who continued to go to work.

There is no silver bullet in the fight against the pandemic. Countries need to tailor their strategies according to their conditions and available resources. China shut down the worst-hit cities and provinces. South Korea conducted mass PCR testing to ensure early detection and ordered people to self-isolate. Both countries have seen fruitful results.

Indonesia’s challenging geography and the lack of mobility and access to transportation in many areas may be an advantage at the moment. However, road, sea and air travel must be further restricted and discouraged.